Unwrapping the origins of Secret Santa, Yankee Swap, and white elephant gift exchanges
The roots of Christmastime gift-giving are boxed in customs of ancient Roman winter festivals and Germanic myths, wrapped in stories of Jesus’s nativity and early Christian saints, and tied with a bow of 19th-century American class struggle and 20th-century consumerism.
But what about the origins of names of the gift exchanges many of us hold each year at our office Christmas parties or get-togethers with friends and family, like a white elephant party?
The origin of ‘gift’
Let’s start with the basics. In Old English the word gift usually meant ‘wedding’ or ‘marriage’, and occasionally a ‘dowry’, perhaps also ‘a marriage present from the bridegroom’. If anyone of you are marrying a word lover and are looking for some inspiration for your vows, this little etymological gem is on the house – and in the spirit of giving, the modern Icelandic gifta means ‘to give someone in marriage’.
If you’re a person who decries the use of gift as a verb (e.g., gifting some fine chocolates) as a contemporary scourge of the English language, take it up with history. The Oxford English Dictionary finds evidence for verbal gift as early as the 16th century. Gift and give both share a common Germanic root.
Now to the fun parts. In a secret santa gift exchange, a group of gift-givers is randomly and anonymously assigned which fellow person they will provide a gift for. Then, either each participant has to guess which person gave them the gift – who was their secret santa? – or there is no guessing and the identity of each secret santa remains just that – secret. Note: The phrase is sometimes uppercased.
The origins of this gift-giving custom aren’t known for certain, though some connect it to the Scandinavian custom of julklapp. A julklapp is a ‘Christmas present’ in Swedish, but the word literally means ‘Christmas-tapping’, apparently alluding to an older tradition of knocking on a neighbor’s door, placing a gift before it, and running off before the opener can see who left it.
The OED dates the phrase secret santa to 1933 in the Bee, a newspaper from the US city of Danville, Virginia. An article from 22nd December that year featured the not-so merry headline: ‘Plays Secret Santa, Then Kills Self’. The sad story, reported by the Associated Press in Nebraska, begins: ‘The saga of an 88-year-old Civil War veteran who played secret Santa Claus to hundreds of children before carrying out a rendezvous with death was revealed here today’.
The man was experiencing declining fortunes, but before the man tragically took his own life, the story continues:
Last week more than a hundred children were treated to a Christmas dinner at Maxwell, and candy was sent to every child living in the western Nebraska village. He requested that his name not be made [known], and a few persons knew the identity of the donor until after his death.
The next citation for secret santa in the OED, from a 1969 Chicago Tribune article, uses the phrase for another act of Dickensian goodwill: ‘Presents for the needy from a secret Santa’. An example from 1989 in Michael Moffatt’s Coming of Age in New Jersey: College and American Culture shows the phrase settling into its current Christmas gift-exchange form: ‘“Secret Santa”, a favorite student festivity in the Rutgers dorms in the early 1980s.’
In a standard Yankee Swap gift exchange, each merrymaker brings a wrapped gift (often thematic and price-capped) to a party and draws numbers to determine what order when they get to pick from the pool. The first to draw opens the gift for all to see, and subsequent players can then pick from the remaining items or steal an already opened gift, all vying to end the festivities with a gift they like.
Many myths surround the lexical beginnings of the Yankee Swap. One commonly claims the name is taken from a Civil War tradition of swapping Union Army prisoners of war, dubbed Yankees, for their Confederate counterparts over Christmas. Another puts forth the theory that immigrants in New York City were bemused by all the locals exchanging little gifts – Yankees, swapping – with one another throughout the Christmas season. (Yankee has its own fascinating and complicated history, but we’ll save that story for another time.)
Clever, but only true insofar as Yankee Swap hails from America, as its name would suggest.
Thankfully, word sleuth Peter Jensen Brown has done some deep digging and found that the phrase Yankee Swap was first used in reference to a stereotypic American appetite for trading. In a review of his own masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, the great poet Walt Whitman sings of ‘the Yankee swap’ as one of the ‘essences of American things’ alongside George Washington and the Constitution. Brown also finds a Scottish magazine describing the purported American love of the barter and bargain:
Every thing is a matter of serious calculation with your genuine Yankee. He won’t give away even his words – if another should have occasion for them. He will ‘swap’ any thing with you; ‚trade’ with you, for any thing; but is never the man to give anything away, so long as there is any prospect of doing better with it.
Brown hasn’t pinned down when it was first called a Yankee Swap, but he finds evidence for a festive and ‘old fashioned swapping party’ in an 1899 New York Tribune article as well as an extensive description in 1901 of a ‘swap party’ in a magazine, Table Talk:
In this day of craze for novel entertainments the more nonsensical the scheme the greater the enjoyment seemingly. As illustration the function very inelegantly designated as ‘The Swap Party.’ Why not the word ‘exchange’ instead nobody knows, but at all events it has become very popular alike with old and young.
In a popular variation of the Yankee Swap, participants conduct the game as normal, except they bring gifts that are deliberately impractical, unusual, or downright ridiculous – they are white elephants, an idiom for a useless or troublesome possession.
The OED finds a literal white elephant in the record as early as 1555, referring to albino elephants, especially those kept by Thai kings and revered in Southeast Asia. This fact helped inspire the tall tale that these kings would give white elephants to courtiers they disliked; because caring for such a sacred animal was so expensive, the courtier would be financially ruined.
Fanciful, but completely unsubstantiated.
The OED attests the idiomatically burdensome white elephant as early as 1721 in the London Journal: ‘In short, Honour and Victory are generally no more than white Elephants; and for white Elephants the most destructive Wars have been often made’. Here, the expression has the sense of a too-costly enterprise.
The OED’s next citation homes in on its current sense, when English writer Geraldine Jewsbury remarked in an 1851 letter: ‘His services are like so many white elephants, of which nobody can make use, and yet that drain one’s gratitude, if indeed one does not feel bankrupt’.
Peter Jensen Brown is again on the case. He thinks a white elephant gift became tied up with a similar idiom spreading in the mid-19th century UK and US: ‘to win an elephant in a raffle’. And as for the Christmas gift-exchange, Brown has identified a one-off instance of a white elephant sale for a jumble/rummage sale advertised in Pennsylvanian paper in 1982. But he thinks the phrase white elephant party took off – and may indeed have originated – as a widely circulated a joke published in Nebraska’s Columbus Journal in 1907:
A shocking thing happened in one of our nearby towns, says exchange. One of the popular society women announced a ‘white elephant party.’ Every guest was to bring something she could not find any use for and yet too good to throw away. The party would have been a great success but for an unlooked for development which broke it up. Nine out of the eleven women invited brought their husbands.
Whatever their exact origins, Secret Santa, Yankee Swap, and white elephant exchanges certainly add several layers of alluring wrapping to the much-storied traditions of Christmas gift-giving.